NEWARK, N.J. – The U.S. national soccer team boarded a charter flight Sunday, leaving behind a cool, pre-autumn rain and the jolt from an untimely home defeat for toasty conditions and mounting pressure in Honduras.
The Americans had opened training camp a week ago believing they would arrive in San Pedro Sula for Tuesday’s qualifier in position to all but finalize a 2018 World Cup berth. Instead, following a 2-0 setback to Costa Rica on Friday at Red Bull Arena, they face the alarming prospect of tumbling into fifth place in the six-nation group with two matches left – and perhaps missing soccer’s biggest competition for the first time in 32 years.
At the moment, the U.S. team is third, good enough for one of the region’s three automatic berths. (Mexico qualified Friday and Costa Rica is on the brink.) But because they stumbled Friday, losing for the first time in 15 matches since Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann at the coaching helm last winter, the Americans cannot afford another defeat.
Not Tuesday, not Oct. 6 against Panama in Orlando and not Oct. 10 at Trinidad and Tobago.
“This is our reality at the moment,” captain Michael Bradley said. “The likelihood is that it’s going to go down to the wire, and that can’t faze anybody, that can’t scare us.”
To retain control of their situation, the Americans (2-3-2, eight points) need at least a draw against Honduras (2-3-2). Although the teams would stay even on points, the United States would remain a step ahead because of a far superior goal differential (first tiebreaker).
Given the circumstances, a tie would feel like a victory.
“We’re going to go down there with the mentality to win the game,” Bradley said. “We’re going to be aggressive and, if at the end of 90 minutes we’re in a position where we take one point, we’ll take that and know that everything’s still in our own hands.”
That’s because, even if Panama (1-2-4, seven points) were to defeat last-place Trinidad and Tobago (1-6-0, three) at home Tuesday and overtake the United States, the Americans would regain third place by beating the Panamanians in the subsequent game next month.
So as bad as things went Friday, Arena’s crew isn’t panicking.
“You hate to look at one game and not look at the whole,” Arena said. “We still have three games left in the competition. We’re still in position to qualify for the World Cup.”
If the United States fails to finish third, there is a roundabout way to the World Cup: The fourth-place team will enter a two-leg playoff against Asia’s fifth-place side in November. Likely opponent: Australia, Saudi Arabia, Syria or Uzbekistan.
Four years ago, U.S. archrival Mexico had to take that extra route after barely finishing fourth in the CONCACAF race. (The Americans provided a massive favor to Mexico by knocking out Panama in the final moments of the last group game.) Facing Oceania winner New Zealand, the Mexicans prevailed easily and proceeded to make the second round of the World Cup in Brazil.
Given the high stakes and long travel involved in the intercontinental playoff, the Americans would prefer to earn a direct berth. The first step is coming away with something in San Pedro Sula, where the conditions threaten to sap every last drop of energy. With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. local time (5:30 ET), the weather forecast calls for 90 degrees and 80 percent humidity, making it feel like 106. There’s also a chance of thunderstorms.
With a quick turnaround, long travel and suffocating heat, Arena is expected to replace many of Friday’s starters. In the previous set of qualifiers in June – home vs. Trinidad and Tobago and away to Mexico – he made seven changes, including Brad Guzan for Tim Howard in net. On Friday, Howard failed to make any key saves while his counterpart, Keylor Navas, was terrific.
Another U.S. shortcoming Friday was in central defense, where Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream faltered. (Arena came to Ream’s defense, saying afterward that he “had a solid game.”) Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are the likely replacements.
Other candidates: left back DaMarcus Beasley, midfielders Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta and Alejandro Bedoya, and forwards Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris.
Forward Jozy Altidore, who started Friday, will serve a yellow-card suspension.
Asked if his team has the character to set aside the Costa Rica result, Arena said: “We’re going to find that out, aren’t we?”